Epic Desert Road Trip – Part 1 Reno to the Great Salt Lake

On October 19, 2010 I flew to Reno to meet up with my brother from Hawaii and my Dad who lives in Reno in the summer and Arizona in the winter. Our mission: drive from Reno, NV to Surprise, AZ via Colorado and visit as many National Parks as we could along the way.

We started our epic journey by packing up Dad’s 2000 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. We had a lot of stuff, including two boxes of home-grown tomatoes plus three grown adults to take, but my experience loading vehicles for live animal shows has taught me a thing or two about how to pack!

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Will and Dad and a Packed Monte Carlo

We headed out of Reno on I-80 east, along the Truckee River.

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The Truckee River

We were following much of the Truckee River Route of the California Emigrant Trail. We stopped at a rest area that marked the Forty-Mile Desert.  This part of the trail was described as the most dreaded section of the entire route to California.  We decided to have lunch.  Too bad those emigrants in the mid 1850′s could not have gotten in a time machine to join us.

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Lunch in the Forty-Mile Desert

We continued heading east until we reached Wendover NV.  We spent the night there and in the morning, we toured the historic Wendover Air Base. “Wendover Air Base operated primarily as a training site for the crews of B17, B24 and B29 aircraft, including the Enola Gay and Boxscar, the crews of which were responsible for the first deployment of nuclear weapons over Japan in 1945.” – (Tooele Co Website)

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Wendover Air Base

The Great Salt Lake loomed ahead – and we stopped at one of its shores to explore and have lunch.

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Great Salt Lake

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Caroline examines the Great Salt Lake

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The Great Salt Lake is too salty for most plants and animals to survive, however, there is one famous resident of the salty lake: Sea Monkeys! Sea Monkeys are actually shrimp that are able to exist in salty inland lakes around the world.

No reptiles live in the Great Salt Lake, however, many species of snakes and lizards live in the surrounding desert. Sadly, I found a juvenile gopher snake in the parking lot of the lake’s marina, but it had been squashed by a car.

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Smooshed Gopher Snake

Next Posting…Arches National Park

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Arches National Park

Exploring Myakka River State Park

Located nine miles east of Sarasota FL, Myakka River State Park is one of the oldest and largest Florida state parks and protects one of the state´s most diverse natural areas.  On April 19, my Dad and I headed out for a day of hiking and picnicking with the hope of seeing a few cool Florida herp species.

We were in luck!  Wildlife was everywhere at this beautiful park.  At the picnic grounds, however, it was obvious that a few people had broken the rules against feeding wildlife because we were mobbed by cunning gray squirrels and even vultures as we enjoyed our delicious chips and sammies.

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Black Vulture at the Picnic!

Squirrels and vultures were not the only non-herps we saw that day however.  A Florida invader made his presence known as Dad and I hiked through the jungle.

Next, we found an animal that is native to both Florida and Virginia.

Florida’s most famous herp was abundant in the lakes and ponds in the park.

We also saw tons of anoles – mostly Cuban anoles which are an introduced species that has been displacing the naive Carolina anole from Florida.

After spending time hiking around the forest floor, it was time to head up, up, up into the canopy. We took a walk through the treetops and then climbed a 74-foot tower for an eagle’s-eye view of natural Floridian hammocks and wetlands.

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Dad and Caroline at the top of Florida

Whew, after all the hiking and climbing, we were both pretty tired. So we headed back to the house for some relaxing. And I found one more animal.

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Caroline and Catfish

For more information on visiting Myakka Lake State Park, visithttp://www.floridastateparks.org/myakkariver/default.cfm

The Hognose Heaven Zone

There is a mysterious area very near to that place which is known as Washington DC. It is an area as vast as about  1 or 2 square miles and as timeless as infinity (or at least a few million years.) It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between city an country.  Journey with us now into this wondrous land. It is an area which we call the: “Hognose Heaven Zone.”

Our story begins with a foursome of herpers, Caroline, Charise, John W and Jon K, hiking to an undisclosed location near Washington DC.   Years before this journey began, former Reptiles Alive Wildlife Educator and Keeper Jeff Stryker discovered  a population of hognose snakes and eastern milk snakes (two awesome snake species that are not very common in the suburbs) living in this strange spot and named the place “Hognose Heaven.”

As the group’s journey began, they spotted their first herps of the day. There were many turtles and frogs living in the wetlands along the trail.

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Nesting eastern painted turtle

Soon, the  group of herpers veered off the main trail onto a little-used trail that led to the heart of Hognose Heaven. They began turning over logs and rocks.  A four-toed salamander was discovered!  The salamander’s creamy white and black spotted belly helped with its identification.

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Four-toed Salamander

After arriving at Hognose Heaven, something very unexpected appeared to materialize out of the rocks, sticks, and leaves – something that even four experienced naturalists could hardly see until they were right on top of it!

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Newborn Fawn

The fawn was only a few hours old. Its camouflage was remarkable! The baby deer was nearly invisible – the perfect survival strategy for a small animal that can not yet walk or run. Its mother was nearby and would return as soon as the coast was clear. Even though the group was in a strange place, it is normal to find fawns alone in the woods without their mother. As soon as the people vanish, the mother deer will come back to care for her fawn.
After observing the baby deer, the group continued searching for snakes. Caroline quickly found the hognose snake’s favorite food item: toads.

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Toad

As Caroline approached John W to inform him of her find, she noticed he was holding something in his hands. Something about 3 feet long, with orange spots on a black body and a pointy, upturned nose. “Hognose! Hognose!” she yelled with joy!

John W and Caroline yelled for Jon K and Charise to come and see the spectacular serpent. When they arrived, however, the snake was acting strange.

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Does this Hog-nosed Snake Need Help?

As the group excitedly discussed the behavior of the hognose snake, the snake in question seemed to miraculously get better!

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It’s a Miracle! (or maybe just a Hognose)

After making his miracle recovery from his apparent death, the snake made his move and slithered back to the safety of his rocky home.

Now, the group needed to make a decision. Continue the search? Or have lunch? Caroline suggested having lunch after a short hike over to a nearby bizarro-world she called: CACTUS ISLAND!
Believe it or not, (believe it), the prickly pear cactus is native to the Washington DC area. Much of its habitat has been lost to urban development, but it can still sometimes be found in certain micro-habitats around our nation’s capital. That day, the cactus was in bloom!

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Prickly Pear Growing Near Washington, DC

Does the story end here? Did they find an eastern milk snake? Did they have a good lunch? Only they know the answer to those questions. Questions from the Hognose Heaven Zone.

Reptile Survey at Mason Neck State Park – 5/22/10

We had a ssssspectacular Saturday as part of a Virginia Herpetological Survey (VHS) team for Mason Neck State Park and National Wildlife Refuge.  Tony & Caroline along with about 20 other VHS members participated in the day long search for reptiles and amphibians.  Each animal found was documented along with the location and  micro-habitat it was found in.

We started the day around 8:30 am.  We were divided into 5 teams that were given 5 different sections of the area to survey.  Our team was assigned to the areas of the Wildlife Refuge that are closed to the public.

We drove to the end of the main Refuge access road to an area that used to be a farm.  Five foot tall grass, poison ivy, and millions of deer ticks awaited us.  We were not deterred!  Almost immediately an eastern box turtle was found.

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Eastern Box Turtle

And then in a very short period of time, we found a brown snake, multiple worm snakes, more box turtles, two spotted salamanders, and giant native millipedes (I know – they don’t really count on a herp survey, but they were so cool!)

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Northern Brownsnake

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Spotted Salamander

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Eastern Wormsnake

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Millipede

We also found two black racers – snakes that are known for being fast.  One of the racers was in a somewhat odd micro-habitat.  It was about 5 feet off the ground hanging on a small tree growing on the edge of a cliff.

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Northern Black Racer

We continued herping (searching for reptiles and amphibians) throughout the morning.  It was hard work hiking through the brush, lifting logs and turning over rocks, but we were dedicated to our mission.

 

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Jon the Dedicated Herper

We drove a few miles down to an area of vernal pools, marshes, and wetlands.  We found more herps, including cricket frogs and green frogs.  One of the green frogs was also in a somewhat strange spot (for a green frog), he was about 3 feet up on the side of a tree stump.

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Northern Green Frog

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Northern Green Frog on a Stump

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Northern Cricket Frog

While in the wetlands, we also found some frog predators.  Many painted turtles were spotted basking on logs.  A large snapping turtle was found in a pond under a log – but he foiled our attempts to take his picture.

Many people believe the myth that venomous cottonmouth (water moccasins) live in the Washington DC area.  They do not.  Our area is too far north for them to survive.  We do, however, have harmless northern water snakes which are often confused with both cottonmouths and copperheads.  Like many snakes, northern water snakes will flatten their bodies and heads to appear more “viper like” when they are threatened which can lead to their mis-identification as a venomous species.

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Common Watersnake

In the same wetland location, we also found beautiful ribbon snakes.  Ribbon snakes are similar in appearance to their close relatives the garter snakes, but the ribbons are much more slender.

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Common Ribbon Snake

Whew – after all this success we started to get a bit hungry.  So we decided to head back to the meeting site,  eat lunch, and find out how the other teams were doing.

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Hungry, Hungry Herpers!

After our short lunch break, we headed back out into the field for more searching.  We discovered more worm snakes, more box turtles, lots more green frogs, more spotted salamanders and we had an encounter with a rarely seen in Fairfax County lizard species, the ground skink.

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Little Brown Skink

Deep in the woods, far from any roads or trails, we also discovered a sign of the past.

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Dial S for Snake

We did, however, find a venomous species of arachnid hiding under a log:

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Black Widow Spider

Around 5 pm, we headed back to meet up with the other teams and share our data collection for the day. The VHS president Kory Steele was there adding up all the numbers from each team. Soon, we would learn which team found the most animals.
Guess which team won? Well, as Kory reminded me, this was not a contest. Our mission was to collect data to assist with the conservation of reptiles and amphibians. (Ok, but our team won – we found 57 individual herps representing 17 species – woo hoo woo hoo!)
All of the animals we found that day were left in the spot we found them. Well, except for two animals – alien invaders were found in a turtle sampling trap.

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The mouth of an ALIEN!

The aliens were the Frankenfish – the Northern Snake-head! Apparently, there is now a large breeding population of these introduced exotic fish in the Potomac River and its tributaries in the Mason Neck/Pohick Bay area. This new invader could cause unknown consequences on our native fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and possibly even birds and mammals. Surveys such as the one the VHS teams completed at Mason Neck are crucial for the protection and conservation of our wildlife.
We had a sssssssuper ssssssssuccessful Ssssssssssaturday. It was snaketacular.


Information on Mason Neck State Park:
 http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/mas.shtml

To see more pictures of our herp search at Mason Neck, visit our Facebook page.

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Hmmm, I wonder if he will become Prince Charming?